FAQs About “Adaptive Learning” Computer Programs at Your Child’s School

By Ace Parsi, MPP on Feb 22, 2018

Imagine your child’s school announces that it’s going to use a new computer program to help students improve their reading skills. Each student will be given access to a computer. When they use the program, kids will read text on-screen and then answer questions about what they’ve read.

Over time, each student’s assignments will change based on how well they do. The idea is to match reading assignments with each student’s reading level. This system is called computer adaptive learning.

At first, you may be excited. Say your child has an IEP for , and you want homework that’s more tailored for her.

However, when you get your child’s first assignments (sometimes referred to as a playlist), they’re way below her learning ability. It turns out the software didn’t take into account her reading .

This exact situation happened to the 10-year-old daughter of Kristin Kane, a parent in Virginia. The adaptive learning software was Achieve3000. While Kristin’s daughter has dyslexia and struggles with , she reads and comprehends material on grade level with the help of accommodations like text-to-speech. But the software didn’t see that.

Your child could face a similar situation soon. More and more schools are buying and using adaptive learning technology. Last year, schools spent $41 million on this type of software, according to EdWeek. It’s part of a bigger trend toward education technology and personalized learning in schools.

This doesn’t mean computer adaptive learning is a bad thing. It fact it has a lot of potential to improve education, in the same way technology has improved other parts of our lives. But if your child has an IEP or , it’s important to be aware of potential obstacles that could come up.

Here are frequently asked questions about computer adaptive learning, and how you can make sure this technology meets your child’s needs.

What is adaptive learning?

Adaptive learning is a technology that interacts with students to offer schoolwork matched to their academic level. With Kristin’s daughter, Achieve3000 offered her a personalized playlist based on what it thought her learning ability was.

Another common use of computer adaptive learning is in math. For instance, if your child is learning multiplication and answers a question easily, the technology may give her a more challenging question. If she gets the answer wrong, the software may offer an easier one.

What are some common adaptive learning programs?

Achieve3000 is one. Two other well-known programs are Knewton and ALEKS. Traditional textbook companies like Pearson and McGraw-Hill are also investing money in this area. As new products emerge, expect to see more names.

How might computer adaptive learning fall short for students with IEPs and 504 plans?

The biggest risk is that computer adaptive learning won’t deliver what it promises—a personalized approach. That’s especially true for kids with IEPs and 504 plans. The situation with Kristin’s daughter is a prime example.

But there are other potential risks, too. If the lessons are poorly designed, for instance, they may not engage kids. Or they might not help kids learn the skills they need to be ready for college and career.

Using computer adaptive learning could also mean that teachers and students don’t interact as much. That could make it harder for schools to identify kids’ learning and thinking differences. And it may hurt kids who need face-to-face time because of academic needs or social or behavioral issues.

Keep in mind that these issues can be true of any education technology in general. When schools aren’t thoughtful about technology, problems can arise.

Can I raise these issues with the IEP or 504 plan teams?

Yes, absolutely. An IEP must lay out how your child is going to make progress in school. And any computer adaptive learning is subject to the same legal standards as other academic programs in school. If you’re having an issue, you can call an IEP team meeting any time. You can also raise the issues with staff who manage 504 plans at your school.

What questions can I ask about the use of computer adaptive learning in my child’s school?

If your child’s school is using or considering computer adaptive learning, it’s best to be proactive. You can ask questions now to prevent any issues from arising in the future. Here what you can ask teachers, your child’s case manager, curriculum supervisors, the principal and the school board:

  • Does the school use computer adaptive learning software, like Achieve3000, Knewton or ALEKS?
  • Who decides on what software to purchase?
  • How is the software integrated into school curriculum, including kids’ social-emotional needs?
  • How are teachers trained to use the technology in classrooms?
  • Does the software take into account accommodations in my child’s IEP or 504 plan?
  • How will the school ensure that the software isn’t putting up barriers to my child learning content at her intellectual level?
  • What are the options if the software isn’t helping my child make progress in school?

It may be encouraging to you to know that Kristin’s story didn’t end where her story left off above. When she discovered the problems with her school’s computer adaptive learning, she sprang into action. She raised the problem with her child’s IEP team. And she and other parents took their concerns to the school district’s special education department. They’re now looking for solutions.

Have you had an experience like Kristin’s? Have you had any issues with education technology in schools? Join the secure Understood Community and share your experiences with other parents. You can dive into the community conversation about computer adaptive learning here.) A team from Understood founding partner NCLD will be available to answer questions and give helpful advice.

Together, we can make sure that technology in schools serves the needs of all kids, including those with IEPs and 504 plans.

Any opinions, views, information and other content contained in blogs on Understood.org are the sole responsibility of the writer of the blog, and do not necessarily reflect the views, values, opinions or beliefs of, and are not endorsed by, Understood.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Ace Parsi, MPP is the personalized learning partnership manager at NCLD.